Wellcome Book Prize Goes to Mark O’Connell for ‘To Be a Machine’

In News by Porter Anderson

Mark O’Connell wins the Wellcome Book Prize for surveying transhumanist ideas of “improving our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better.”

Marc O’Connell

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Animals We Are’

The Irish author Mark O’Connell has been named winner of the Wellcome Book Prize and its £30,000 purse (US$41,200) for his debut To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death.

Published this year by Granta in the UK and by Penguin Random House’s Anchor Books in the States, the book is a treatment of the concept of transhumanism which, as Wellcome’s materials for the press put it, is “a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are.

The UK cover from Granta

“It’s a philosophy that, depending on how you look at it, can seem hopeful, or terrifying, or absurd.”

Said to be the first full-length examination of transhumanism—for which we sometimes refer to such television series productions as Altered Carbon and Westworld—To Be a Machine was named the winner on Monday evening (April 30) at London’s Wellcome Collection.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Wellcome Collection in London—named for its patron Henry Wellcome—is a museum and library focused on science and medicine. With its slogan about being a place “for the incurably curious,” the organization has recently featured exhibitions including the digital article “The Story of Yoga,” “Ayurvedic Man: Encounters With Indian Medicine,” and “Somewhere In Between,” which features the work of artists Martina Amati, Daria Martin, Maria McKinney, and John Walter, in collaboration with scientists.

O’Connell and his book were in competition with these shortlisted contenders:

  • Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (Nigeria) Canongate Books. Called by jurors “a remarkable and turbulent novel that sweeps the reader into the heartbreak of infertility and societal expectation.”
  • The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris (USA) Allen Lane, Penguin Press. Described by the jury as “A gruesome yet spellbinding account of how Joseph Lister transformed medicine,” with a cover art treatment of Thomas Eakins’ 1889 The Agnew Clinic.
  • With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix (UK) William Collins, HarperCollins. Jurors commend the author’s “unparalleled knowledge of palliative care, with compassion and with an urgency to make dying part of our lives.”
  • Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing (UK/Sweden) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books. Jurors praise this book as “powerful and searing without ever feeling exploitative.” Rausing’s writing, they say, “is spare and honest, asking questions that many would be too frightened to.”
  • The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman (USA/Canada) Doubleday, Transworld. The jury in its rationale says, “Wadman’s brilliantly researched book unfolds like a thriller, but asks some tough ethical questions along the way.”

The shortlist was cheered when announced in March for its author-gender distribution of five female writers and one male, O’Connell. The only other Irish writer to win, in 2016, was Suzanne O’Sullivan for It’s All in Your Head.

‘To Live Forever’

The US cover from Penguin Random House / Anchor

Edmund de Waal, the chair of the jurors, is quoted, saying, “To Be a Machine is a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever.

“Mark O’Connell brilliantly examines issues of technology and singularity. In doing so he brings into focus timely issues about mortality, what it might mean to be a machine and what it truly means to be human. This is a book that will start conversations and deepen debates.

“It is a wonderful winner of the Wellcome Book Prize.”

And Kirty Topiwala, the Wellcome Collection’s publisher and book prize manger, is quoted, saying, “This book is fresh, funny and disquieting.

“It raises profound questions about our future and challenges how we think about health and humanity. This is very much at the core of what we do at Wellcome Collection, making To Be A Machine an exciting and worthy winner of this ever-diverse prize.”

The Wellcome shortlist, which included Mark O’Connell’s winning book

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.